Illustration by Anna Buckley

Shattering my family's culture of shame as a queer Caribbean woman

August 08, 2018 8:00 am

I didn’t come out to my mother because I wanted to. I called her into my room because she was getting better at using technology—something I had not anticipated when I began writing about my sex life on the internet—and I wasn’t about to let Google snitch on me. I sat her down on the edge of my bed and I asked, “Would you still love me if I liked women?” And then I immediately burst into tears.

My mother was born in Grenada, which is one of many Caribbean islands with anti-gay legislation. Consensual sex between two cisgender men is punishable by ten years in prison there, and the LGBTQ community faces violence, harassment, and discrimination. Similarly, my dad was born in Trinidad, a nearby country that only decriminalized same-sex intimacy earlier this year. Before then, it had a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. And there are other Caribbean countries where the maximum sentence is still life.

These attempts to legislate who can love and the deeply christianized anti-LGBTQ nature of the Caribbean are remnants of colonialism. While these laws are not necessarily enforced, they teach people that a queer identity is a criminal act that deserves to remain hidden. My family packed that perception in their luggage when they emigrated to the U.S.; they also passed it down to their children. When I was 11 and just starting to recognize my bisexuality, I would hear the disgust in their voices when queerness came up. My family and I went to church every week, where anti-LGBTQ Caribbean people comprised the congregation. I told myself I would never come out.

It would’ve been manageable if my family simply condemned queerness. Instead, they expected and continue to expect queer people to condemn the desires within ourselves, too. They think being queer is a choice we can avoid making, and if we cannot avoid it, a moral flaw. And for a long time, I did too. I thought that avoiding bisexual behaviors would make me a heterosexual person. I tried to ignore half of me but soon discovered that was impossible.

I used to give my mom updates on all of my close friends. When I reached high school and my best friend started dating another girl, I hesitated to share with her. She found out one day and turned up her nose.

“Why would she do that?” my mom wanted to know.

But it seemed so easy to understand. Because they liked each other. Because they were compatible. Because love isn’t gendered. I didn’t know how to explain what felt like common sense and I didn’t want to implicate myself. I wanted to hide myself.

Writing allowed me to be open about my sexual identity in a way I previously could not. My essays were featured in online publications, which felt safe because my parents were so removed from the online world. They didn’t even have cell phones. I started fearlessly writing about my attraction to women. I wrote about gatekeeping in the LGBTQ community. I wrote about threesomes and the pressure to perform bisexuality for the male gaze. And in the process, I was able to connect with bisexual women who had similar experiences to mine. I realized that I wasn’t alone in this narrative and grew more comfortable with being openly and distinctly queer. Everyone in my life knew who I was, internet strangers knew who I was. Only my family did not.

Finally coming out to my mother represented two things: yes, I am bisexual, but also that I am no longer afraid to be. The first part she could understand but the last? It rested uncomfortably between us.

“You don’t look gay,” she said after some silence.

By this, she meant that I didn’t look like Ellen DeGeneres or Lena Waithe. Her understanding of women who liked women was that we weren’t typically feminine. My long hair and love for the color pink challenged her digestible perceptions. So I explained what femme means. I told her how invisible it can feel to be queer when you don’t appear queer. And here, I sensed her relief. Masculine women represented a queerness that was unapologetic, one that occupied space and refused to hide. She was grateful I didn’t have access to the part of queer identity she could not avoid if she tried.

Dia Dipasupil/WireImage/Getty Images

I forced her to watch shows with feminine women who liked women. I thought it would normalize my identity for her. Instead, she decided that my sexuality was Netflix’s fault. She became very busy with pathologizing my identity. She needed to know which fragment of American culture was responsible for who I had become, whether it was my proximity to other queer people or media visibility or pop music. But perhaps when your daughter comes out as the very thing that is criminalized in your home country, that is the only way to understand it: her queerness becomes the unfortunate side effect of a culture that fails to punish.

The same woman who celebrated Black History Month by taking me to museums and buying me books about blackness was oddly confused by the need for a Pride Month and my desire to participate in it. She scowled as rainbow flags appeared all over Brooklyn. When I told her I was not only attending Pride, but marching in the parade itself, she was horrified.

“You don’t see us celebrating straight pride,” she told me. “Why do you have to expose yourself like this?”

All month, my mom clung hopefully to the doorknob of the closet, trying to usher me back in. She accepted that my identity could exist in a bedroom but not that it could stand celebrated atop a float. Eventually, we stopped talking about my coming out altogether. We used to sit in our living room, gossiping about the men I was dating and the potential of a forever with someone. Now that the context of forever had changed slightly, we avoided those discussions.

She told me that some family members had discovered essays I’d written. I asked her to find out if they knew anything and she sucked her teeth—that would involve talking openly about it. Soon after, my dad found me on Facebook. My entire family was becoming suddenly and remarkably tech savvy. And I wanted my mother, someone who offers unsolicited advice on every other situation, to help me navigate that. She refused.

“I’m sorry, I cannot be your ally,” she said.

I felt like she had left me to flap around in the darkest part of a deep pool. I resented her for it. I almost regretted coming out to her. She expected me to be more quiet about something I had spent an entire lifetime coming to terms with, something which I was finally learning to be loud about.

And then finally, I understood. I had spent an entire lifetime learning to accept my queer identity—but I wasn’t even giving her a month. There were days when the word “bisexual” still caught in my throat and yet I wanted my mother to use it to describe me, her chest puffed out. I knew our culture. I knew how our family had impacted me. But somehow, I hadn’t been sensitive to the ways our culture of shame had impacted her. I finally discovered the patience for what she had only just started to unlearn.

My mother and I will have to navigate the discomfort for a little. She has to challenge her own perceptions and reimagine my future. But if I could evolve from someone who avoids loving women to someone who honors it, there is hope for her. In a few years, when the calendar folds from May into June, I can imagine her telling me, “Happy Pride,” and how full I will feel.